Dec 7

Three Historical Questions From the Life of Paul

This semester I am teaching a course in our Bible School on the Life of Paul.  It has forced me to make many interpretational decisions about the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles.  Some of the conclusions I have arrived at have surprised me.  Although the following article is lengthy and deals with complicated issues,  if you are interested in learning more about the life of Paul, I think it will prove to be worth your time to read it.

Galatians 1:1-2:14

The life and ministry of the Apostle Paul holds a prominent place in the New Testament historical record. By his tireless labors and travels for the sake of the gospel, he greatly contributed to the numerical growth, geographic expansion, and missionary character of the early church; his thirteen epistles made significant additions to the content and theological message of the New Testament; and during his life and in his writings he both formulated and modeled practical principles for Christian living and ministry. These factors distinguish Paul as second only in importance to Jesus Christ in his influence on Christianity. In the early chapters of the book of Galatians we are confronted with three significant historical questions about the life of Paul. Because of Paul’s importance to the Church, a proper interpretation of these historical questions becomes critical.

The first historical question which must be answered is this: When and where was the book of Galatians written? Question number two is to whom was the book of Galatians written? And question number three is which event (if any) recorded in the book of Acts can be harmonized with Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 2:1-10? These three questions are closely inter-related; how we answer any one of these questions will directly influence our interpretation of the other two. For this reason it is important to decide which question to answer first.

Although some may doubt whether the third question is even related to the first two, it is actually essential to first answer correctly question number three. There are two different answers to question number three given by conservative Bible scholars. The most common method of harmonizing Galatians 2:1-10 with the book of Acts is to identify Paul’s second Jerusalem visit (Gal. 2:1) with Paul and Barnabas’ visit to participate in the Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council is recorded in Acts 15:1-35 and took place in 49 AD between Paul’s first and second missionary journeys. There is some surface evidence which seems to support this view of events: Both Galatians 2 and Acts 15 mention the presence of Paul and Barnabas together during the visit. Furthermore, the purpose of the Jerusalem Council parallels the point at issue in the book of Galatians which is whether Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved.

However, there is much stronger biblical support for the view that the Galatians 2:1 visit must be equated with an earlier event in the book of Acts. Acts 11:27-30 and 12:25 record an occasion when Paul and Barnabas brought relief funds from the Antioch Church to the Jerusalem saints. In point of actual fact, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was Paul’s third visit to Jerusalem recorded in the book of Acts (the first, Acts 9:26 cf. Galatians 1:18; the second, Acts 11:27; the third, Acts 15:2). In light of Paul’s strong asseveration (Gal. 1:20) that his statement of events in Galatians 1-2 is both truthful and accurate, it seems highly unlikely that he would represent the Jerusalem Council visit as his second visit, since this would undermine his whole argument. The apostles’ injunction for Paul to “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10) provides a secondary support for identifying the Galatians 2 visit with Acts 11:27ff since its purpose was to bring relief to the poor saints in Jerusalem. Although Acts 11-12 does not explicitly record the conference between Paul and the apostles alluded to in Galatians 2:6-10, this does not mean that it did not take place. Finally, this view perfectly aligns with the chronological and sequential notices that are contained in both Galatians and Acts concerning Paul’s activities during this period: Paul was converted about 33 AD; three years later he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18); he afterward returned to Tarsus where he remained for almost 10 years (Acts 9:30; Gal. 1:21-24); then Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch where they ministered together for a year (Acts 11:25-26). This places Paul’s visit to Jerusalem to bring relief funds in about 46 AD (14 years after his conversion and prior to his first missionary journey).

The next historical question concerns the intended recipients of the book of Galatians. This problem is complicated by geographical issues and by changes through time in political boundaries within the Roman Empire. There are two primary views: One view holds that Paul wrote to ethnic Galatians (cp. Gal. 3:1, “O foolish Galatians…”), whose cities were located geographically in the Northern part of Asia Minor. The second view asserts that Paul wrote to citizens of the Roman political district of Galatia, which included the cities of Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra in Southern Asia Minor. If Paul ever visited the cities in Northern Galatia, there is no record of it in the book of Acts or in any of Paul’s other epistles. But Acts records that Paul visited the cities of Southern Galatia twice on his first missionary journey (Acts 14) and then revisited them on two subsequent journeys (Acts 16:1-6; 18:23). It is simpler to assume, and most contemporary scholars agree, that Paul wrote his epistle to the churches in the region of Southern Galatia near Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium which he had evangelized in 47 AD during his first missionary journey.

The last question to be considered is really two questions: When did Paul write the book of Galatians and where was he when he wrote it? The traditional view held by the majority of scholars states that Paul wrote Galatians from the city of Corinth during his extended stay there on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-18) in about 51 AD. There is one serious difficulty with this view, however. If Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians after the Jerusalem Council had taken place, why did he not mention the decision of the apostles and elders which would clearly have supported Paul’s position against Gentile circumcision? Although this is an argument from silence, in this case the silence fairly shouts for an explanation. Furthermore, the Book of Acts informs us that after the Jerusalem Council Paul and Silas distributed the decrees of the apostles and elders in these same cities of Southern Galatia at the beginning of the second missionary journey (Acts 16:1-6), before they arrived in Corinth (Acts 18:1ff). After having received these official letters from the Jerusalem apostles delivered personally by Paul, it seems incredible that they could be persuaded against the authority of both to accept a contrary teaching a few months later.

There is a simpler and more believable explanation. If we hypothesize that Paul wrote the book of Galatians after his return to Antioch at the conclusion of his first missionary journey and before the Jerusalem Council took place, then we avoid all the difficulties of the previous theory. After completing the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas remained for a “long time” in Antioch (Acts 14:28). It was during this period that Judaizing teachers went out from Jerusalem without apostolic authorization or approval and began to disseminate their teachings. They demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-2). Paul and Barnabas disputed with some of these itinerant teachers in Antioch, and it is almost certain that others carried their doctrines to other locations as well—including the cities of Southern Galatia. As the book of Galatians records, these Judaizers had marked success in persuading many of the new believers there to come under the yoke of the law. Although these teachers did not possess authorization from the apostles in Jerusalem, they nevertheless claimed such authority for their teaching. They criticized Paul’s gospel as defective and Paul himself as lacking in authority for the message he preached. When Paul received a report of the situation in these churches, he immediately wrote to them to defend his Gospel of Grace and himself as a true apostle authorized by Christ. He passionately called the believers back to simplicity of faith in Christ alone. Paul could not appeal to the Jerusalem decrees in support of his position because the Jerusalem Council had not yet taken place. In fact, it was the division and debate initiated by these pharisaic teachers that created the need for the Jerusalem Council to be called. It should be further noted that this interpretation of events essentially requires one to accept that the second Jerusalem visit of Galatians 2:1ff must be the relief visit of Acts 11:27ff, since at this date of writing the Jerusalem Council was yet future.

This solution to these historical problems places the writing of Galatians in about 48 AD and makes Galatians the earliest of Paul’s letters—written even earlier than the Thessalonian Epistles, which are traditionally considered Paul’s first. But in contrast to some other solutions offered it is internally consistent. It further provides a much more satisfactory interpretation of the background, occasion, and contents of the book of Galatians. Furthermore, it offers greater insight into the historical conditions existing during the early transitional period of the church’s history when it was separating from Judaism. Finally, it adds significantly to our understanding of the life of the Apostle Paul. Although it may be impossible to obtain absolute certainty concerning these questions of long ago, nevertheless available evidence imparts a high degree of confidence that this view is the right one. I hope that this article will spark your interest and motivate you to pursue further investigations into the life of one of the greatest Christians who ever lived: the Apostle Paul.

In summary, here is a suggested outline of dates and events for the relevant period of Paul’s life with supporting Scripture references:

  • 33 AD – Saul of Tarsus is converted near Damascus (Acts 9; Galatians 1:13-16). This is about 3 years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and after the Pentecost of the Church.
  • 34 AD? – Saul goes into Arabia and returns to Damascus (Galatians 1:17).
  • 36 AD – Paul makes his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem (“after three years”; Acts 9:26-29; Galatians 1:18-20).
  • 36 AD – Paul returns to live and work in Tarsus (Acts 9:30; Galatians 1:21-24). According to Galatians 1:23, Paul was preaching and evangelizing during this period.
  • 45 AD – Barnabas brings Paul from Tarsus to Antioch (“a whole year”; Acts 11:25-26).
  • 46 AD – Paul and Barnabas take relief funds from the Antioch Church to the Jerusalem saints; Paul meets with Peter, John, and James; they agree to a demarcation of ministry (“fourteen years after”; Acts 11:27-30; 12:25; Galatians 2:1-10).
  • 46 AD – Paul and Barnabas depart on first missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff).
  • 47 AD – Paul and Barnabas conduct the evangelization of Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra (“Southern Galatian” cities; Acts 14:1ff).
  • 47 AD – They return to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28).
  • 48 AD – Itinerant Judaizing teachers begin to spread their doctrine in cities already evangelized by Paul—including the cities of “Southern Galatia”; Paul and Barnabas dispute with some of these men in Antioch (Acts 15:1-2).
  • 48 AD – Peter visits Antioch; he first eats with the Gentiles, then separates from them after the arrival of the Judaizers; Barnabas follows Peter’s example; Paul rebukes Peter publicly for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14).
  • 48 AD – Paul receives a report and writes a letter to the “Southern Galatian” churches defending his gospel and apostolic authority and urging the believers to return to the simplicity of faith in Christ alone (Galatians 1:1ff). Thus Galatians is the earliest of Paul’s epistles.
  • 49 AD – The Antioch church sends Paul and Barnabas to the Jerusalem apostles and elders for an opinion on the issue; the Jerusalem Council is held; the apostles and elders do not require circumcision for Gentiles; they send letters and emissaries to confirm the decision (Acts 15:2f).
  • 49 AD – Paul and Barnabas separate; Paul and Silas depart on second missionary journey (Acts 15:40).
  • 49 AD – Paul and Silas visit the “Southern Galatian” churches and deliver the Jerusalem Council decrees (Acts 16:1-6). We can assume that with the delivery of the official opinion of the Jerusalem elders and apostles, the issue of Gentile circumcision was finally put to rest in these churches.
  • 50 AD – Paul and Silas evangelize Macedonian cities (Acts 16:1ff).
  • 50 AD – Paul arrives in Corinth where he remains for a year and a half (“a year and six months”; Acts 18:1ff, esp. v. 11).
  • 50 AD – Paul writes the epistles of First and Second Thessalonians from Corinth within a several month period (1Thessalonians 1:1ff; 2Thessalonians 1:1ff).
  • 51 AD – The traditional date for the book of Galatians, which places it during the period of Paul’s ministry in Corinth, does not harmonize well with the chronology or sequence of events found in the book of Acts and Galatians.

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